NER’s Elizabeth Sutton speaks with 43.2 contributor David Ryan about juxtaposition, character development, and writing around gaps in his story “Elision.”
Elizabeth Sutton: “Elision” begins with the tranquil scene of a child’s cartwheels on a lawn and progresses ominously to a “gray-yellow” sky where “the dark tips of the forest’s pines . . . shivered silver, as if a transparent hand had combed itself slowly over them.” The contrasts and building tension in this first paragraph work so well to pull the reader into the scene. Could you describe how the contrasting elements here introduce other juxtapositions in the story?
David Ryan: Thanks, Elizabeth! I think, when I was trying to find the way into this story, I was concerned with how the opening might work as a metaphoric frame for the movement of what happens later. I don’t usually work with a plan with stories. It’s mostly intuitive. I might have a sketchy idea or metaphor, or just an image in mind, and nothing else.
Rodrigo Rey Rosa has said he finds it really useful to not just write the main idea you have at first, but to back up and, as spontaneously as possible, free-associate from some earlier point you hadn’t considered. You improvise, create a kind of transcribed dream that then moves toward the thing you know. And because you know where it’s headed, the dreamwork basically confabulates interesting connections that work towards that end point. That’s been so useful to me. But I use that idea really having no idea where the destination is, too. It depends on the piece and whatever I have to start off with.
Here, Lily’s later discovery of that strange book in the house was the only idea I had. It was the one thing that needed to happen. And given how bizarre her discovery is, I think I just sort of opened with the first ideas that came to mind—that same sense of estrangement from her known world, but situated outside the house, in the natural world. A heightened, uncanny “usual,” where the tops of trees shiver as if a hand were combing over them, just as the familiar home suddenly has something unfamiliar in it.
But even if I’m working recursively with a story—essentially feeling around in the dark for ideas that seem to hang in the limbic space of the moment—along the way certain ideas and images in the opening will start to propel the text forward. Describing the sky as the color of milk might start as a descriptive thing that rises up spontaneously. But later it might undergo a transformation into some other context that actually, in this case, becomes significant to the ending of the story. I hadn’t counted on that, hadn’t known that in advance. Something as simple as milk suddenly has a kind of animistic property, a contagious magic. Spilled milk on the floor, the way it distorts ones reflection, the way it had been hanging in the narrative memory and had come to arrive at the story’s cadence. I love playing with that—the smallest images and biggest ideas can go through this shape-shifting trajectory. And so that’s probably why ideas and contrasts in the opening manage to help shape what’s to come. I try to work as loosely as I can, but then try also to stay mindful of what the story is generating along the way.
But I do go back and revise—consider what I can connect, add, take away. You retrospectively discover connections and useful contradictions, and then just distill or expand them where it seems useful.
ES: Your story brings up a physicist’s suggestion that we “live an infinite number of parallel lives all at once.” We make choices and step from one possible future to another, moving forward into new dimensions, but the past remains a “single wake behind us.” The story takes place over a short period of time but stretches into the past and future very nicely. Could you talk a little about your use of time in the story?
DR: This might have a couple of lateral answers, actually. Maybe together they get at something? One being that I love writers who thread the experience of a moment into a kind of vertical, spatial frame. And even in the writing process, any thread on that plane of experience might produce a new idea. The idea that there’s this nearly-vertical chain of causation packed into every single moment that can move between an action, or thought, memory, sensory perception, and so on: lifting a glass of orange juice might connect to a memory, seemingly unrelated, which triggers an emotion that pushes into daydream, which then snaps out and prompts a new gesture just as the phone rings, which prompts an action that might completely change the course of the story. That kind of kaleidoscopic, spatial experience of time, turned out and set in motion, is how we take in each moment, this perpetual process of selection between countless possibilities of experience. Any of which might start binding with others, or with some new outside reality that comes at us.
Elena Ferrante plays with that threading of experience—an action into memory into daydream which provokes an astonishing gesture or action. So does Hanne Ørstavik. There’s this collusion of the elements of experience rather than a stock linear sort of movement of “this happened, then this, then this, then this.” They so elegantly express experience as a threading of possibilities. Here I was just bending that sense of the fluidity of an experience into something Lily has heard on the radio about quantum physics. It’s different, the quantum thing, but related. But time here is relevant to how much of that threading I wanted, versus the economy of the story. It became a matter of trying to sort out when I wanted the reader to really step into the moment—that psychic threading of it—and when it might be better to use a bit of summary to push forward more expediently.
But there was a whole other reason for mentioning that physicist. The “simultaneous lives” idea is something of a figure in the carpet for what’s missing from Lily’s own sense of her life. Where, later we see the suggestion of these other lives in that book—which had been unknown to her, but are also entirely related through the connection with Paul. And this is how we all live (though in less dramatic terms, most of the time!). We don’t ever see or know all the people who are involved in our lives, simultaneously, at any moment. We put on a shirt and have no idea of the countless people who had something to do with the process of milling of the cotton, sewing it, making the buttons, etc. And each of those people (or machines) are living their own lives alongside our own—a kind of harmonic structuring of experience. We are so much more inter-connected than we could ever realize. And at any moment we might encounter one of those lives, which then could change everything in what we thought was our path. Every moment is so mutable—every gesture is loaded with a million possible paths. So that mention of time operating both simultaneously and spreading out became a formal device, another object that shape-shifted into the actual events and characters here.
ES: By the end of story, Lily and Paul‘s lives have changed. Life in the “inscrutable modern house” is tainted by the discovery of the photos in Paul’s office of the “unusually thin” woman in the “glitter platform shoes” in front of a “little pink ranch house.” The relationship is changed by the discovery of the past dimensions of Paul’s life and his “scrapbook of desperation” where faces drift “into a repository of invisibility.” Could you describe how you conceived of these characters, made them so persuasive, and view their development over the course of the story?
DR: I’m glad you found them persuasive. Lily and Christopher are actually on some level me and my daughter. She was the same age as Christopher at around the time I was first working on this. I was with her a lot during the day, and it was wonderful and so strange. She’s an only child and so my wife and I had none of that sense of understanding about how the world was going to work anymore. I suddenly understood some deeper sense of what it meant to be an animal and for this (and many other reasons) I am so thankful. That baseline impulsion toward survival, but also a strange connection to things that I don’t think I had the wherewithal to understand. With a baby, it feels like every month, from infancy on, there is a new set of things to worry about, to check. Developmental things, health issues, just daily threats that rise up from nowhere. There’s a lot of joy, and a lot of just normal life, but there was suddenly this strange sense of risk wrapped around the most commonplace things. Things I’d taken for granted. So, in writing Lily and Christopher I wasn’t trying to write “a woman” and “a son” so much as find the things that we have in common as human animals, and using that as the generative energy.
In this story there’s a gesture of urgency in the opening—the idea of an earthquake is sort of a metaphor for all the vulnerability you can feel as a parent suddenly. Christopher is maybe a little quiet for his age, and this opens up all kinds of unknowns to a parent. And few of them are resolvable, or answerable right away. You watch, and notice, and wait to see if it’s something that doesn’t go away. You’re in constant negotiation with fate. And fate remains mostly silent until it’s not. This extraordinary drive to keep another human being safe, and the similarly extraordinary counter-force you now see, perhaps for the first time with such light, becomes the surrounding world. It has the effect, a positive effect, of just heightening your experience of everything. I wanted to suffuse the story with that sense of a person—me, Lily, anyone—wanting to understand the things she wasn’t being told. It’s this sublime gap she is suddenly forced to navigate, raising this child, trying to make good on the contract of being human. Lily and Christopher were the closest thing to me trying to understand the world flying by.
The husband, Paul, isn’t much of a person in the story—it’s focused primarily on Lily and Christopher—so much as a kind of agent. I felt like he was knowable as a type, the type that seems to get away with things. Though I try to just dance around it, without letting this dominate. We’re surrounded by people who seem to get away with things, sometimes terrible things, their whole lives. But also, we can think we know someone really well and only later find out we didn’t know them at all. A lot of marriages go that way. I wanted, with as much economy as possible, to use him to convey this, to provoke these ideas.
The other people in the story are just imagined composites. Sometimes they seem to just rise up so vividly and fully formed in the writing process. Sometimes I’ll write someone I once knew, who has died, into a story. I’ll just sort of memorialize them there. But ultimately, I suppose we are every character in the stories we tell, in some form. Here in the story, I wanted these people to be relatable—with perhaps really sharp details, but not too much, so that the reader could see enough of them to then pull out the people they’ve known like this. Those people you see, and maybe even know, who pass through life and you don’t notice them, until you do.
ES: The word elision refers to an omission, something left out, a gap, like the “gaps in a trusting relationship” that Lily, the wife in the story, just accepted. Could you describe how you built the framework for a story that concerns itself with gaps. How does one write into and around erasure?
DR: The idea of elision has a few valences in this, actually. I love the way you put the question, though. This idea of writing around the gaps, treating the gaps as the center, and writing only the margins. It’s something Kazuo Ishiguro does so well. One of the central (and gapped) ideas is Paul, the husband. He is more of an idea (or like I said before, an agent) than an active participant in this story. I’ve left a lot out about what he’s actually doing, but in my own mind I had an entire operation he was involved with that was unknown to Lily. This was the challenge, to know what he was up to but not to say anything but what was necessary about it. I wanted to keep the lens on Lily. This too goes back to this general anxiety we’re probably all feeling—that there is a whole class of people who are getting away with terrible things and seem to be able to flaunt this without consequence. But what if you were a monster and had managed your whole life to hide this. Not to flaunt it but to successfully contain it, seal it off from even a spouse. To treat life as this perfect crime? Anyway, that was some of the energy behind Paul, that unknown quantity. And I think I just tried to keep that energy in the silence around the text in the last part of the story. The trick was, again, to make a really detailed etching of the situation, but to stop short of explaining the whole thing, leaving the potential there for the reader’s imagination.
And all of this led to the more interesting proposition of what it would mean to be married to someone like that. To be a good, unassuming person like Lily. To accept this level of comfort in life with the person you believe you love, and never once question the origins of that comfort. Until you did see it, maybe just a glimpse of something unexplainable. This became the driving energy of the piece, though it’s meant to vanish nearly as soon as it’s revealed. And that became the largest gap, which was also the source of a lot of the narrative’s energy. This gap, this un-understanding, it then generated all these really wonderful other gaps in the larger weave. The idea I guess was to write only the slightest context into the moment Lily discovers that book, while trying to write as evocatively of the life existing on the surfaces.
Elizabeth Sutton is the office manager and reader of fiction at NER. A recovering English major from Bennington College, Eli began her publishing career in New York City when she joined the staff of AMS Press, a reprint publisher of small literary magazines for college libraries. She later moved to academic publishing at Columbia University Press and Ashgate Publishing in Burlington. She has been a bookseller at Deer Leap books in Bristol, Vermont, and is currently a volunteer for Everybody Wins! Vermont, a reading-mentor program in the Middlebury elementary schools.